The cool indifference of a deluge

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Destroying everything in its path — from tiny fishing villages to mighty megalopolises — water is that terrifying enemy that has no will, no ego (published in The Hindu BLINK, 31 December, 2016)

(View the PDF here)

My first real experience of nature overwhelming human society happened a little over four years ago in New York City. I had witnessed my fair share of monsoon floods in Kolkata and apocalyptic snowstorms in America’s northeast, but those events, however devastating, were somewhat familiar, and people had a way of muddling (or, indeed, paddling) through, carrying on as the waters drained away or the snowploughs carved through the streets. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy more forcibly disrupted affairs in New York. After leaving a trail of devastation in the Caribbean, it slammed into the Atlantic coast of the US, gouging out beaches, flooding neighbourhoods, destroying homes. It killed over 200 people in eight countries (157 just in the US). But the storm grabbed the world’s attention mostly for what it managed to do to New York City, plunging the international media and finance capital into helpless darkness.

Sandy arrived at a time of high tides, leading to enormous storm surges. The coastal parts of New York City flooded, forcing whole neighbourhoods to evacuate. Water breached a major power plant on 14th Street in Manhattan, causing an explosion (which my friends and I saw light up the dark sky from our perch at what was billed, in our hubris, a “storm party”). The public transportation system shut down. Huge swathes of the city lost power, and access to running water, heat, and landline telephone service. Cellular reception also stopped working, so long lines snaked from the few functioning phone booths, an odd sight in the age of the iPhone. When night fell in the city, it fell in the way it must have for millennia before the gas lamp or light bulb: a thickening, leaden dark, pricked in a few places by candles, otherwise implacable.

For days, lower Manhattan was transformed into a surreal place and its inhabitants seemed to be skulking in ruins. Powerless (in multiple senses of the word), I walked through the streets and soaked in the eerie quiet of a metropolis stilled.

A deli owner peered out of the gloom of his shop while reluctantly eating from a tub of melting ice cream. People grilled their thawing meat on the street. Nearer to the engorged East River, I heard the drone of generators (which most New Yorkers never need because they take electricity for granted) being used to pump water out from flooded homes. An abundance of water often borders on its lack; residents from nearby tower blocks — where water had been cut — carried this floodwater away in buckets to flush their toilets, wash dishes, and boil to bathe.

Hurricane Sandy reminded New Yorkers that theirs was a city on the water, a simple truth that can be forgotten so easily amidst its asphalt and urban density. Even though New York consists mainly of islands situated where an ocean meets a great river, New Yorkers often have little notion of the water all around them. It was a city built on shipping, oyster fishing, and the arrival of immigrants by boat, and yet it feels landlocked in the 21st century. The writer Teju Cole captured this strange New York paradox in his gorgeous, liquid novel Open City: “This strangest of islands, I thought, as I looked out to sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points… Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed about them.”

In part, this remove from the water is physical, a question of infrastructure. Bridges and subways displaced the ferries that were once the habitual mode of transit in the city. Until very recently, riverside areas were devoted largely to industry, places for docks and warehouses, not promenades and boardwalks. But the remove is also cultural. Nobody thinks of the Hudson River or the East River in the way that people in Kolkata invoke the Hooghly, Londoners the Thames, or Parisians the Seine. Even though New York sits off the Atlantic Ocean, there is no iconic sea-facing “corniche” like you’d find in Beirut, Mumbai, Marseille, Dakar, Lima, Havana or any number of major coastal cities around the world. In the public imagination, New York is the consummate “city”, all skyscrapers and chrome canyons, tenements and alleyways, a human jungle cut off from the natural world.

Perhaps that is why the destruction of New York City by cataclysmic floods is such a common trope in storytelling; it’s a vision of the ultimate revenge of nature over the realm of human beings. Numerous Hollywood films revel in depicting New York submerged beneath the waves. In Deep Impact (1998), an asteroid strikes the surface of the earth, triggering a colossal tsunami that decapitates the Statue of Liberty and pours through the avenues of Manhattan, drowning Times Square. Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence (2001) imagines a depressingly plausible future in which the melting of the polar ice caps has raised sea levels and left New York entirely underwater, with the torch and crown of the Statue of Liberty feebly poking from the waves. A super-storm in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) causes an unprecedented sea surge; the film shows the dark waters rushing block-by-block through the city, New Yorkers in their helpless thousands unable to save themselves from the ocean. A tanker ship eventually sails up Fifth Avenue. I wasn’t immune to the appeal and horror of the theme, either. In my short story ‘A United Nations in Space’, I imagine a future plagued by climate change in which the UN complex (along with the rest of New York City) is flooded, the rusting hulk of the Secretariat building leaning back and forth in the tides.

Part of the power of these narratives — however far-fetched and silly — is that they are not simply drawn from dystopian fantasies but seem to echo real-life events. Hurricane Sandy pales into insignificance compared to other major storms and floods in recent years. From the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, to the Japanese tsunami in 2011, to the now-frequent epic floods that paralyse Chennai, the ravages of water jostle for space in our newspapers, and not just our cinemas.

And yet the resonance of the flood imagery isn’t just contemporary. I’ve long been struck by the ancient ubiquity of myths about great floods. Thanks to the spread of Christianity and Islam, we all know the story of Noah’s Ark. The flood also features in earlier West Asian tales, including the epic of Gilgamesh. But cultures everywhere harbour legends about aquatic cataclysms. In the Puranas, Manu is forced to contend with a world-destroying flood. The indigenous Canari people of Ecuador have a myth about two brothers who alone survived a gigantic flood and repopulated the world with the help of a woman with the face of a parrot. The Welsh pair of Dwyfan and Dwyfach survived a flood in a “mastless ship”, and then spent the rest of their lives procreating in Britain. The two progenitors of the Temuan people (indigenous to Malaysia) were able to survive the flood by clinging to the top of a tree. When recounting their own flood tales, the Finns and other Scandinavians blame the gushing blood of slain giants for engulfing the world.

In many of these stories — there are so many more — the flood is retribution for the sins or deficiencies of human beings. Water wipes the slate clean and allows a new, morally purified world to emerge from the damp. In others, there is less of a sense of intent; the water just is. Water makes a terrifying enemy precisely because it has no will, no ego. In our contemporary folk tales and films, the flood is a rebuke to ambition and arrogance, a measure of the small scale of human striving against the indifferent eternity of the sea.

Even before Hurricane Sandy, it was difficult for me to walk around New York and not think at least occasionally of the rivers foaming over the concrete rim of the city. It’s not that I’m morbid or particularly pessimistic. I’ve just always made an effort to reflect on the waterways that gird the city I live in, from watching the freshwater ice floes come down the East River in the winter to enjoying the heave and spray of the Staten Island ferry. It inspires a large kind of humility. No matter its monumental encrustation above the sea, New York City is made from water, and to water it will one day surely return.

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